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As recently as 1986, wine writer and critic Jancis Robinson devoted little more than a paragraph to carmenére in Vines, Grapes and Wines, her seminal guide to grape varieties. Noting that it had been important in the Médoc and Graves before phylloxera, she holds out the hope that plantings might again increase in order to use the grape in blending to add “roundness, colour, and additional character.” Little did she know, apparently, that carmenére was alive and well in Chile.  

Little did the Chileans know, either, for it was widely confused with merlot, despite the uniqueness of its scarlet fall foliage. It wasn’t until 1997, when a French ampelographer (great cocktail- conversation word denoting someone who studies origins of grapes and leaves) encouraged DNA testing that confirmed the grape’s identity, that carmenére began to be cultivated as a variety in its own right. Often said to possess the roundness of merlot and the complex earthiness of cabernet sauvignon, in a decade carmenére has become the signature grape of Chile in the manner of malbec — another refugee from Bordeaux — in

As Chile’s wine industry has flourished in recent years, so has carmenére improved, and it seemed time to take stock of the grape bottled as a single varietal to best ferret out its true character. Omniboire sat down with 11 of them, nine of which made the 13/20 scoring cutoff, and it turns out that that character can be a little feisty. “The nose often doesn’t match the palate” (and the nose was at times a little vegetal), was the consensus of our panel — hosted at Café Paladar by chef and owner Brian West. In addition to yours truly, the two other panelists were Central Market wine guru Heidi Holcomb, and Republic National Distributing’s on-premise powerhouse Sandra Waldhelm — sisters both in fact and in the wine trade. 

Chile is both capitalizing on and struggling to transcend its reputation as a value-wine country, and only one of the contenders was priced above $18 (and it scored at the bottom of the pack); most hovered around the $12 range. Do give these
distinctive wines a try — it’s not all about cab and pinot.

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Viu Manent Reserve 2004 Carmenére Valle de Colchagua
, $12-$15
Woody-spicy notes, lush and velvety 

“It has a great nose and is subtle, lush, and velvety on the palate,” enthused Waldhelm, and she was seconded by West, who called it “rich” and suggested serving it with a braise such as osso bucco or pot roast. Holcomb found “a touch of exotic fruit,” with white pepper and anise. Not damn bad for an average 13 bucks or so. 

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Castillo de Molina Reserva 2004 Carmenére Lontue Valley
, $9
Dried fruit with mocha, sweet cherry on palate, great value

“There’s a cobbler, caramelized thing going on,” claimed West, who envisioned serving it with chocolate cheesecake topped with stewed cherries. Holcomb detected “an exotic funkiness” on the nose, coupled with “ripasso” aromas, dark, dried fig and an earthy, “even dirty,” quality right off the bat. (Omniboire doesn’t pass judgment — if dirt does it for you, that’s fine with us.) “The fruit is ripe but not stewed — it says ‘Hey, let’s have another one,’” offered Waldhelm. We don’t pass judgment on that, either. 

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Casillero del Diablo 2006
Carmenére Chile
, $10-$11
Sweet fruits, strawberry jam, some port/zin qualities 

A lusty “red zin quality,” according to West.  Holcomb found it varietally correct but was surprised to detect “strawberry jam,” an attribute Sandra seconded. Omniboire found more caramel than jam and also suggested an herbal quality that dissipated as the fruit intensified with time in the glass. Let this one open up. 

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Alcance de Viña Calina 2006
Carmenére Maule Valley
, $12
Black plum with undertones of earth, well-balanced palate 

From one of Chile’s southernmost wine-producing valleys, this wine provoked Waldhelm to purr “It’s mmmm on the palate; I didn’t want to swallow.” She also found “a subtle, intricate balance” and “a little ‘pop’ in the middle.” “There’s an earthiness masked by fruit,” offered Holcomb, while West wasn’t too impressed. “It didn’t light up anything for me,” he claimed. 

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Santa Rita Reserva 2004 Carmenére Rapel Valley
, $10-$11 
Tobacco, black fruit, and loam, fruit fades with time 

“It just makes the finish line and was flat at first, but came back … `but` I wouldn’t kick it out of bed for eating crackers,” said West. “It seemed to have higher alcohol and acidity right away … it needed more time in bottle or glass,” offered Holcomb. “My first impression was that it was ‘hot’, but not later `when` it delivered on the palate but wasn’t intense on the finish,” said Waldhelm. Note: at 14.1 percent it was not the “hottest” wine we tasted. Omniboire liked it for tobacco and black-fruit aromas and loamy black plum on the palate — at first. This was not a wine that improved with quality refrigerator time.

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MontGras Reserva 2007 Carmenére Colchagua Valley
, $18
Jolly Rancher fruit, some earth, full palate 

“Grape Jolly Rancher,” opined Holcomb; “grape jelly on toast,” seconded West. “It has a dirty smell, yet was really good on the palate; the fruit was there,” countered Waldhelm. For the record, Omniboire found cherry conserves, not grape — but grape jelly has never been a favorite. Not even with peanut butter.

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San Pedro 1865 Reserva 2004Carmenére Maule Valley
, $16
Vegetal, mushroomy nose abates, some cherry on palate, needs time to open up 

West was something of a Lone Ranger on wine number seven, saying, “I really liked this one; it was mushroomy, earthier … ” One man’s mushroom is another woman’s “vegetal,” however; Waldhelm also found it “disjointed `though` better on the palate.”

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Viu Manent 2006 Carmenére Colchagua Valle
y, $10
Slightly sweaty/cedary on nose, fruit fades over time 

The Viu Manent elicited a gamut of opinions from “`smells of` armpit but drinks really well; it’s like a cabrales cheese,” (West) to “It’s like dirt in your face after a rain,” (Holcomb — we like that one), and “There’s not enough on the palate to compensate for the nose,” (Waldhelm). Omniboire was only a tad kinder, finding the nose “distinctive,” yet in the cedar-herb family. 

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Terruño Concha y Toro 2006 Carmenére Peumo
, $31-$32
Some jam and balsamic notes, bright fruit but finishes tart

The price/value disappointment of the tasting was Concha y Toro’s Terrunya 2006 Carmenere Peumo Vineyard, Peumo Cachapoal Valley. It looked classy, but elicited comments such as Holcomb’s “bright young fruit but not a lot of structure,” Waldhelm’s “soft — nose didn’t match palate,” and West’s food-centric “stewed plums and balsamic, but let me down on the palate.” Omniboire detected jammy black plum and some coffee/caramel, but a “sour” finish — not necessarily a great note to end on, so go back to the beginning and revisit “subtle, lush and velvety.”

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Exceptional, snap it up
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Extremely good, seek it out
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Good, some outstanding qualities

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Good, but consider price

Most wines can be found at Central Market, Saglimbeni Fine Wines and other specialty wine shops

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